Cancer breakthrough: Drugs target specific genes

Lung cancer survivor
In 2007, Bill Schuette was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Chemotherapy failed, but he is recovering thanks to a new drug treatment that targets specific genes.

It's big news in the fight against cancer: Two new studies report dramatic progress in treating advanced melanoma and lung cancer.

Both of these treatments use an approach that is creating a lot of excitement among doctors --tailoring drugs to the genetic makeup of individual patients, and the results can be remarkable, as CBS News correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook reports.

In 2007, Bill Schuette was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Seven different chemotherapies failed. He was told nothing more could be done.

"I basically was looking at going to -- go home and make arrangements," he said.

But then he heard about something new: an experimental drug that targets a certain type of lung cancer based on its genetic makeup. Tests showed he was a candidate.

His rare form of non-small-cell lung cancer has a genetic mutation called ALK that fuels cancer growth. The new drug, Crizotinib, works by blocking this abnormal gene, causing tumors to shrink.

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"One of the first things they'll tell me is ... they feel so much better after starting on the drug and the feel so much better than they ever did when they were on chemotherapy," said Dr. Alice Shaw of Massachusetts General Hospital.

In preliminary results presented over the weekend, 55 percent of patients were alive after two years, more than four times the usual survival rate.

The drug only works for the 4 percent of patients with this kind of lung cancer. That may not sound like much, but doctors say this is the future for all cancers -- finding treatments that may work for only a fraction of patients, but that work very well.

Schuette is recovering. "I'm able to get back on the bike, I'm swimming, walking and hiking and I'm hoping to do my first major ride here in September," he said.

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook